Claude illustrates the Old Testament story of Hagar, setting it in a tranquil landscape bathed in hazy sunlight. Hagar is an Egyptian servant girl who gives birth to Abraham’s child and runs away after quarrelling with Abraham’s childless wife, Sarah. Claude captures Hagar’s suffering and despair: having run out of water in the wilderness, she has left her son, Ishmael, under a bush and is praying for God’s salvation. In the Bible, this scene is set in the desert, but Claude depicts a verdant landscape that resembles the countryside around Rome.
According to the story, an angel appears to Hagar and gives her water. However, Claude shows a substantial river in the background. Pointing towards a distant town, the angel encourages Hagar to return to Sarah and Abraham. With his other hand, he points towards her, conveying God’s promise that Ishmael will become a great leader.
Painted at the height of Claude’s success in 1646, this is one of several paintings by him that illustrate the story of Hagar. In the book of Genesis (21: 15–19), Hagar, an Egyptian servant girl, gives birth to a child by Abraham. She quarrels with his wife, Sarah, who is childless, and runs away. Here, Claude captures Hagar’s moment of suffering and despair: having run out of water in the wilderness, she has left her son, Ishmael, under a bush and is praying for God’s salvation.
In the Bible, this scene is set in the desert, but Claude depicts a verdant landscape. According to the story, an angel appears to Hagar and gives her water, but Claude shows a substantial river in the background. Pointing towards a distant town, the angel encourages Hagar to return to Sarah and Abraham. With the other hand, the angel points towards her, conveying God’s promise that Ishmael will become a great leader.
The angel’s clothing was originally painted yellow which is now barely visible. Instead we see the blue layer painted underneath. The angel’s wings have also lost some of their vibrant colour over time.
The story of Hagar was frequently portrayed in seventeenth-century Dutch art, particularly by Rembrandt and his followers. In their paintings the landscape is less important and the figures of Hagar and the angel are usually shown at close range. In Claude’s painting, the landscape is the most dominant and engaging aspect of the composition, and draws our eye through to the distant buildings that convey a sense of distance and scale. This tranquil scene, bathed in hazy sunlight, celebrates the beauty of the countryside outside Rome, where Claude spent most of his life. A similar composition is included in Claude’s Liber Veritatis, a collection of drawings made after his paintings, although this scene is placed in a horizontal format, there is no boat and the bridge has an additional arch.
The British landscape painter John Constable greatly admired this painting, which he saw when it was in the collection of his patron Sir George Beaumont. The vertical format and use of trees to frame the foreground influenced Constable’s Dedham Vale painted in 1802 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). George Beaumont is said to have enjoyed Claude’s painting so much that he took it with him wherever he travelled, and when he gave his collection to the National Gallery in 1826 he asked to keep it until his death.
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